In all the times they’d attacked us, I’d never considered that. No one was supposed to have a gun unless they were an officer. Only a rebel would be able to get around that. Even August had just said the Northerners were essentially unarmed. I wondered if he’d been carrying tonight.
“What’s your name?” she asked. “I know you’re a girl under there.”
“Mer,” I said.
“I’m Paige. Looks like you’re new to being an Eight yourself. Your clothes are pretty clean.” She was turning my arm gently, looking at the oozing wound as if she could do something even though we both knew better.
“Something like that,” I hedged.
“You can starve out here if you’re alone. You got anywhere to go?”
I shuddered with a roll of pain. “Not exactly.”
She nodded. “It was just my dad and me. I was a Four. We had a restaurant, but my grandma had made some rule that he was supposed to leave it to my aunt when he died, not to me. I think she was worried my aunt wouldn’t have anything or something like that. Well, my aunt hates me, always has. She got the restaurant, but she got me, too. Didn’t like that.
“Two weeks after Dad died, she started hitting me. I had to sneak food because she said I was getting fat and wouldn’t give me anything to eat. I thought about going to a friend’s house, but my aunt would just be able to come and get me, so I left. I took some money, but not enough. Even if it was, I got robbed my second night out here.”
I looked Paige over as she talked. I could see it, under the growing layer of grime. There was a girl in there who used to be very well taken care of. She was trying to be tough now. She had to be. What else was there for her?
“Just this week I found a group of girls. We work together and share all the profits. If you can forget what you’re doing, it’s not so bad. I have to cry afterward. That’s why I was hiding back there. If the other girls see you cry, they make my aunt look like a saint. J. J. says they’re just trying to toughen me up and that I better get that way fast, but it still hurts.
“Anyway, you’re pretty. I know they’d be glad to have you.”
My stomach rolled, processing her offer. In what seemed like a few weeks, she’d lost her family, her home, and herself.
And still she was sitting in front of me—a girl who’d been chased by a pack of rebels, a girl who could be nothing but danger—and she was kind.
“We can’t get you a doctor, but there would be something to ease the pain. And they could get you some stitches from this guy they know. You’d have to work it off though.”
I focused on my breathing. Even though she was distracting, the conversation couldn’t stop the pain.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” Paige asked.
“Not when I’ve been shot.”
She laughed, and the ease of it made me laugh a little, too. Paige sat down beside me for a little while, and I was glad I wasn’t alone.
“If you don’t want to come with me, I get it. It’s dangerous and kind of sad.”
“I . . . can we just be quiet for a minute?” I asked.
“Yes. Do you want me to stay with you?”
And she did. Without question, she sat beside me, as silent as a mouse. It felt like an eternity was passing, though it couldn’t have even been twenty minutes. The pain was becoming more severe, and I was getting desperate. Maybe I could get to a doctor. Of course, I’d have to find one. The palace would pay for it, but I had no clue how to get ahold of Maxon.
Was Maxon even okay? Was Aspen?
They were outnumbered, but they were armed. If the rebels recognized me so quickly, did they recognize Maxon, too? If so, what would they do to him?
I sat still, trying to talk myself out of the worry. It was all I could do to focus on myself. But what was I going to do if Aspen died? Or if Maxon—
“Shh!” I ordered, though Paige still hadn’t made a sound. “Do you hear that?”
We both tuned our ears to the street.
“. . . Max,” someone yelled. “Come out, Mer; it’s Max.”
That would have been Aspen’s idea, no doubt, using those names.
I scrambled to my feet and went to the edge of the alley, with Paige right behind me. I saw the truck coming down the street at a snail’s pace, heads poking out of the windows, searching.
I turned around. “Paige, would you want to come with me?”
“I promise you, you’ll have a real job and food, and no one will hit you.”
Her heavy eyes filled with tears. “Then I don’t care where it is. I’ll go.”
I took her with my good hand, my coat sleeve still hanging off the wounded arm. We made our way down the road, sticking close to the buildings.
“Max!” I called as we got closer. “Max!”
The massive truck skidded to a stop, and Maxon, Aspen, and Officer Avery came running out.
I dropped Paige’s hand, seeing Maxon’s open arms. He embraced me, hitting my wound, and I yelled.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I was shot.”
Aspen parted us, grabbing my arm to see for himself. “That could have been a lot worse. We need to get you back and find a way to treat you. I’m assuming we’ll want to leave the doctor out of this?” He looked to Maxon.
“I don’t want her to suffer,” he insisted.
“Your Majesty,” Paige said, dropping to her knees. Her shoulders started shaking like she might be crying.
“This is Paige,” I said, offering nothing else. “Let’s get in the back.”
Aspen lowered a hand to Paige. “You’re safe,” he assured her.
Maxon put an arm around me, escorting me to the back of the truck.
“I was sure it would take all night to find you,” he worried aloud.
“Me, too. But I was in too much pain to get very far. Paige helped.”
“Then she’ll be taken care of, I promise.”
Maxon, Paige, and I crawled into the back of the truck, and the metal floor was strangely comforting as we sped back to the palace.
IT WAS ASPEN WHO LIFTED me from the back of the truck and hurriedly carried me to a tiny room. The space was smaller than my bathroom and held two slim beds and a dresser. There were little notes and photos on the wall, which gave it some personality; but it was otherwise barren, not to mention incredibly cramped with Aspen, me, Officer Avery, Maxon, and Paige filling every spare inch.
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